Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CHAPTER 32: The Material Goods of the Monastery

        Let the abbot appoint a reliable brother to be in charge of the monastery’s material goods.  This brother should be in charge of distributing these things as they are needed.  He should also be in charge of collecting them after they’ve been used.  And he should keep a list so that he won’t forget what he has loaned out.  If anyone should handle the material goods of the monastery in a sloppy or careless way, let him be reprimanded.   If he does not amend, let him come under the discipline of the Rule.

When I was seventeen, I burned a hole in the living room carpet.  I didn’t do it on purpose, but let’s just say I “wasn’t thinking” when I set the hot kettle of popcorn on the rug in front of the TV.  A few minutes later, my mother was standing in the middle of the room, looking at that blackened pit in front of the television with tears in her eyes, saying, “How much of this house do you plan to destroy before you finally leave for college?  Just let me know so I won’t get too attached.”  That was a few weeks after I had decided to juggle bowling balls in my bedroom and several months after I had backed the family car into the front porch.  I remember thinking “Geez.  I didn’t mean to do it.”  But in retrospect, I can see why she was so upset.  It’s easy to be sloppy with someone else’s stuff.  Saint Benedict foresees this danger in his monasteries, which is why he devotes three chapters to the care of material possessions.
Contrary to popular belief, monks do not take a vow of poverty.[1]  Nonetheless, Saint Benedict makes it clear that no monk is to have anything of his own.  But it is precisely for this reason that the monk must treat everything in the material world with extraordinary care: in his eyes, it all belongs to God.  Now apply this way of thinking to the world at large.  It is, in a manner of speaking, “on loan” to us from God.  Before long, we’ll be dead and someone else will be in charge of it.  Even the stuff we “own” will belong to someone else some day, no matter how hard we cling to it.[2]
So regardless of how you feel about ‘climate change’ or ‘species extinction’ or ‘resource depletion’, the natural and material world should be treated with enormous care because it just doesn’t belong to us.  We have no more right to burn a hole in the ozone layer than we have a right to burn a hole in someone else’s carpet.  It’s a matter of respect—not for nature itself, but for nature’s Architect and Lord.

[1] We also don’t take a vow of chastity.  But more on that later.
[2] I find it darkly amusing how kings in so many ancient cultures tried to hold on to their material possessions after they died.  Museums are full of artwork and armor that were buried with their owners in the expectation that they could enjoy it in the afterlife.  One Sumerian king even left instructions for his servants to be buried alive with him!